The Packers completed perhaps the most impressive playoff run in their illustrious history with a 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field to capture the NFC Championship. The No. 6-seeded Packers knocked off No. 3 Philadelphia, No. 1 Atlanta and then No. 2 Chicago, all on the road, to earn the franchise's fifth Super Bowl berth and a shot at the organization's 13th world championship.
"It's a tough road, man, but we just always believed in ourselves if we had the opportunity to get in the playoffs, that it didn't matter what road, which way we had to go, we felt confident we could get it done," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Three tough games, three tough places."
Plus some history to boot. The Packers became the first No. 6 seed in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl, and the second NFC team to win three road games to get there, following the 2007 New York Giants, who stunned the Packers at Lambeau Field in this same game three years ago.
"We took the toughest route that you can possibly take," defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "We know we definitely earned this."
The Packers are the second No. 6 seed in league history to reach the Super Bowl, following the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers. It's those Steelers – winners over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship – who now stand in Green Bay's way in Super Bowl XLV, which will be decided on Sunday, Feb. 6, at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
When that arrives after the next two weeks of hype and discussion, it will mark the Packers' sixth straight game with virtually everything on the line. The Packers needed two wins in their final two regular-season games just to qualify for the playoffs, a bid that wasn't sealed until safety Nick Collins' interception against these same Bears in the final 20 seconds of the regular-season finale.
Now, combined with this playoff run, that's five straight victories, all with the season in the balance, and all against teams with double-digit victory totals. It's hard to imagine the chore being any more difficult, or any more satisfying to complete.
"Now we have the opportunity to achieve greatness, and that is winning the Super Bowl down in Dallas," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "Bring the Lombardi trophy back home. We never doubted that throughout the season.
"This was the path that was chosen for us, and I think it's really shaped a hell of a football team."
A team that, for the third time in these last five games, took things right down to the wire and used an interception on defense to seal it. After Collins' big play three weeks ago, there was Tramon Williams' interception of Michael Vick in the end zone in the final minute in Philadelphia, and on Sunday it was Sam Shields' turn.
The undrafted rookie cornerback picked off Chicago's third-string quarterback, Caleb Hanie, at the Green Bay 12-yard line – his second interception on the day – with less than a minute left to preserve a victory that in all honesty shouldn't have been so tense.
The Packers led the game throughout, beginning with an opening 84-yard touchdown drive, capped by quarterback Aaron Rodgers' play-action bootleg run around left end for a 1-yard score. Rodgers was 4-of-4 passing for 76 yards on the march, with Jennings catching two for 48 yards on his way to an eight-reception, 130-yard day.
Moments later, Green Bay's punt team pinned Chicago at its own 2, the first of five times punter Tim Masthay helped plant the Bears inside their own 20. The defense got a quick stop, the offense took advantage of the good field position at the Chicago 44, and five plays later running back James Starks (22 carries, 74 yards) dove over from 4 yards out for a 14-0 edge early in the second quarter.
But then the Packers started squandering their chances to pull away. Starks was stopped on third-and-1 from the Chicago 36, and one possession later, Rodgers' first-down pass to Donald Driver at the Chicago 41 bounced off his hands and into linebacker Lance Briggs' for an interception.
Shields made sure the Bears didn't capitalize by rising up to snare quarterback Jay Cutler's deep throw to Johnny Knox with 32 seconds left in the first half, but the 14-0 halftime lead felt like it should have been more.
"We felt we had them on the ropes there for a while," McCarthy said. "We just couldn't get the game to a three-score game."
The most costly miscue came early in the third quarter, when Rodgers engineered an impressive 77-yard drive from his own 17 to the Chicago 6. But on third-and-goal, and under pressure, Rodgers tried to force a throw into coverage that linebacker Brian Urlacher picked off. Even with a sack there, it's still a short field goal for a 17-point lead, but instead the Bears stayed within two touchdowns.
"It's a real bad play by me," Rodgers said. "We could have gone up by three scores right there."
Fortunately, Rodgers kept his wits about him and took off in pursuit of Urlacher, who returned the interception 39 yards out to the 45. Rodgers' sliding tackle in the open field was the only thing that kept him from going 94 yards to paydirt and perhaps turning the entire game around.
Rodgers said he and backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who threw a pick-six in the New England game in Week 15, have had some good laughs watching each other flail helplessly trying to tackle defensive players, but this one was no laughing matter.
"It was a terrible throw," Rodgers said. "Once I threw it, I started sprinting, and I was hopeful that I was able to at least catch up to him.
"I don't get paid to tackle, but that was probably one of my better plays of the day."
Truthfully, Rodgers had plenty of good plays in completing 17-of-30 for 244 yards and adding 39 yards rushing, and even with a 55.4 rating he was outplaying Cutler and his backup, Todd Collins, who came in early in the third quarter when Cutler (6-of-14, 80 yards, 1 INT, 31.8 rating) left with a knee injury.
But after two futile series from Collins (0-for4), the Bears turned it over to the third-stringer Hanie late in the third quarter and he gave them a spark. His 32-yard pass to Knox down to the 1 set up Chester Taylor's TD run to make it 14-7 with 12:02 left, and a game was afoot.
Again, the Packers had chances to extend the lead but failed, as two passes to tight ends on third-and-shorts in Chicago territory fell incomplete. The defense, though, provided some breathing room.
With Chicago facing third-and-5 from their own 15, Hanie didn't see nose tackle B.J. Raji drop off the line into coverage, and his short pass to running back Matt Forte (70 yards rushing, 90 receiving) went right into the 337-pound defender's mitts. He strolled in from 18 yards out for the touchdown and a 21-7 lead with 6:02 left, setting off a bit of a celebration on the Green Bay sideline.
"That was a huge play of the game for us, and could definitely be classified as a game-winner," McCarthy said.
Only it wasn't, because Hanie came right back to drive the Bears 60 yards for a touchdown in just 1 minute, 21 seconds, hitting Earl Bennett for a 35-yard score with 4:43 to go. After the Packers went three-and-out, giving them a measly three first downs (two by penalty) on four possessions following the Urlacher interception, the Bears had one more shot from their own 29 with 2:53 left.
Hanie (13-of-20, 153 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 65.2 rating) got the Bears to a third-and-3 from the Green Bay 27 with 1:15 left, but an end-around handoff to Bennett was stopped by linebacker Desmond Bishop for a 2-yard loss. Then on fourth-and-5, Hanie tried to go deep to Knox, and Shields was there to finally end the drama.
It was the typical nerve-racking finish for this team, but to a man the players believed in the defense, which has stood tall all year. Driver admitted he was "a little on pins and needles," but Collins said the unit was determined to "stay poised."
"With the secondary we have, the way guys are playing right now, it's always a matter of time before any one of us make a play," Williams said. "That's the way we feel about anything. We may bend a little bit, but with the players on this field, a play is going to be made some way, somehow."
Added defensive coordinator Dom Capers: "To win big games like this, it comes down – and I've said this many times before – to two or three or four plays a game, and we were fortunate to make those plays."
Those plays are now sending the Packers to the Super Bowl. To these guys, it's not just that they've made it this far, but how they did it – overcoming numerous injuries, a 3-3 start and a two-game losing streak in December that nearly derailed all their hopes.
"It's unbelievable, man, especially with the things we've been through this year," said defensive end Ryan Pickett, invoking some 'team of destiny' thoughts. "For us to stick together, and come out and play the way we've been playing, it's unreal, man. We deserve it. We're supposed to be here. We feel like that now. We're supposed to be in the Super Bowl."
With a chance to add their own chapter to this franchise's decorated history, a chapter that began with Super Bowl talk way back in training camp.
"Guys believed then, guys believe now," Driver said. "We just have to win it all."